Category Archives: actors

Movie Review: Marilyn Monroe Nurtures Clark Gable with her Milky Breasts in”The Misfits”

 

 

At a certain point in John Huston’s film of Arthur Miller’s original screenplay, “The Misfits,”  Marilyn Monroe’s breasts are poised to tumble out of her blouse and into Clark Gable’s hungering mouth. She seems born to the task of suckling this aging cowboy, as well as his two friends, played by Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift. Without the nourishment bursting from her blouse, these three losers are unlikely to survive for long.  They are predators whose prey is becoming extinct because of their greed, and without prey, the predators themselves shall surely die.  And in these final days in the Nevadan desert, each in turn makes his case for salvation via the milky world of Monroe’s nurturing breasts, now freshly available in the wake of a Reno divorce.

On the surface, “The Misfits” plays as Miller’s screed against masculinity, written in the desperate haze of the disintegration  of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. He is wild with fear of his marriage being eclipsed by the powerful allure of the men will fill Monroe’s life in his absence. It is the paranoia of competition, which sets man against man in the sexual arena where the best man often loses.  This story of a divorcee who rides into the desert with three crusty suitors is the nightmare of all men who have lost the woman they love.  Beneath the competing passions lie the roots of murder, and since these men are still too civilized to murder each other, they band together to round up a dozen misfit mustangs, and then to murder these equine doppelgangers, and sell them for dogfood.

But the film goes deeper than that. Miller realizes that he is the fourth member of this gang, and no better than the other three.   In fact, these three men are not simply an invasion of masculine force that will determine the future of his dissolving wife, but a harbinger of his own lonely fate.  And she will reject them just as she has rejected him. When men depend on the favors of a woman to perpetuate their own childlike alienation from the rest of the world, they  give her the power of the ultimate predator.  And in they end, as each continues his solitary journey, they will perish, and like figments of a Bunuellian dream, they will grasp for their mother’s breast in their final vertiginous moments.

I have never been a fan of Marilyn Monroe, but her performance in “The Misfits” has stayed with me through the years.  Watching it again today, I see that her acting is really no better here than elsewhere, but Huston captures something in her expressions that I have never seen in her  cardboard airhead roles.  Except in the earlier scenes with Thelma Ritter, who carries  the scenes she shares with Monroe, she is terrible when she has to act.  Her  close-up reaction shots,  however, are often remarkable.  I don’t know if this is the magic of Huston’s direction, or some combustive intuition that manifests itself in the muscles of her face, but it strikes me as real as the projections from Marlon Brando’s id that illuminated the mystery of Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”

John Huston is possibly the least brilliant of Hollywood’s pantheon directors.  He batting average is  250, with one out of every four movies being a treasure and the other three ranging from indigestible swill to passable junk food.  “The Misfits” is more Arthur Miller’s movie than his. But Huston does full justice to it. Even Gable’s ridiculous over-acting in key scenes is believable in the hyperbolized emotionalism of Miller’s erotic nightmare. Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift are excellent throughout, Clift being especially good.  I kept wondering if he were playing out his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor here, as so many of the scenes echoes things Taylor has said about her intimate relationship with Clift.

“The Misfits” benefits from its not being a film adaption of a pre-existing  Arthur Miller play, but a living entity created for the screen, for these particular actors, with much of it being revised and rewritten in the artistic fury of production. Had it been simply the transfer to the screen of a work that had a pre-existing life on the stage, it would not be nearly so complexly alive.

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Movie Review: “The Revenant” or “Man in the Wilderness Redux”

 

 

When “Man in the Wilderness” opened at the Seattle Seventh Avenue on November 24, 1971, it wasn’t on the list of movies I wanted to see. Instead, I went to Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,” Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels,” and Milos Forman’s “Taking Off.”  There were plenty of other options in Seattle that weekend, including David Lean’s latest, “Ryan’s Daughter,” as well as revivals of his “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”  A few suburban second run houses had triple features of the first three “Planet of the Apes” movies, and The Crest, right outside the city limits, offered the blockbuster double feature of “West Side Story” and “Around the World in 80 Days” for just 50 cents.

There was nothing about “Man in the Wilderness” that appealed to me.  And nobody in the industry or the press was treating it as anything special. Reviews were poor.  Howard Thompson, in the New York Times, judged it “a flat, pretentious bore,” while John Hartl of the Seattle Times called it “an entertainment for masochists.”  It ran for three weeks downtown, then “Diamonds are Forever” replaced it.  Unlike most popular features, it didn’t go straight to the second run theaters, but disappeared for six weeks before popping up at the drive-ins.

It seemed like an odd movie to be given an $120 million dollar remake forty-five years later, but  2008 had seen a $45 million remake of a piece of drive-in schlock called  “Death Race 2000,” which had been made in 1975 for “$300,000, so it was pretty obvious who was running the asylum in this new century.  Directing this remake of an insignificant adventure yarn from 1971 was Alejandro González Iñárritu, who had won an Oscar for directing 2014’s best picture, “Birdman.” So this was not going to be any run of the mill remake flop-a-rama.  “The Revenant” was a designer package.

And for the first ten minutes, it looks like it might be a successful one.  Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography promises something grand and epic on the scale of  his work on Terrence Malick’s “The New World.” But after the massacre of the fur traders by the Indians, that scale shrinks.  The cinematography loses its grandeur as the fabulous landscapes are compromised by the cameraman’s intermittent exotropia, and we are running through the claustrophobic backstage of  “Birdman” once more.   Had the director coordinated his mise en scene with the lazy-eyed drift of the camera,  he might have achieved something along the lines of a wilderness version of Hitchcock’s “Rope,” but this is nothing but myopic eye candy.  From this point on, there is nothing worth watching here.

“Man in the Wilderness “opened with a sudden, shocking, and bloody attack by a bear.  About  20 minutes into “The Revenant,” we get a very bad imitation of that scene.  It is much longer, much bloodier, and far less frightening. In fact, its protracted length and exaggerated gore pushes it into a semi-comedic zone.  I mean, you can only watch this stuff for so long before you start laughing at it. And when it is all over, and the victim left for dead, the sense of absurdity remains, hovering over the rest of the film as a reminder of how idiotic this oh-so serious rigmarole really is.

This is a movie that bullies the audience into liking it. You might be slobbering all over your popcorn as you snore away, but when you drag open your eyelids, its hard to  argue with those formidable landscapes, especially as you have read that everything was shot with natural light.  But what does that mean anyway?  I’ll bet they plastered those mountains and riverbeds with millions of dollars worth of high-tech reflectors. And what about the digital manipulation of the images in post-production?  A lot of expensive work went into the manufacture of   images this stylized. They don’t just appear after a session of point and shoot. Personally, I preferred the soft focus naturalism of Gerry Fisher’s  excellent work on “Man in the Wilderness”  to this unnaturally sharp and over-defined stuff.   That old 1971 programmer is looking better every minute.

Yeah, but what about  the superhuman endurance that Leonardo DiCaprio displays as he crawls out of the grave, drags himself across the ice, and down a deadly waterfall?  Well,  it just  proves if you are a big, lumbering man with abnormal features covered in mud, filth, and blood, who takes up more screen space than he deserves that he can pass himself off as the new Orson Welles.  While I don’t  think much of DiCaprio as an actor, his screen presence has never bothered me. I liked him in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and thought he was fine in “Titanic.”  But until he became Martin Scorsese’s #1 leading man, many held him as an object of much scorn .  Then, they must have thought if Scorsese liked him so much, he must be a great actor, not taking into account the possibility that the acclaimed director was now in his dotage. But even without Scorsese’s endorsement, DiCaprio’s presence in the dreadfully popular “Inception,” would have clinched it.  Now he is almost universally accepted as a great actor, and it will surprise many if he does not receive an Oscar for limping his way through “The Revenant.” It would have been considered ridiculous had Richard  Harris been nominated for an Oscar for the same role in 1971, when the competition included Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman, and John Voigt.  There were even some eyebrows raised when John Wayne walked off with the award.  This year, with Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Matt Damon, and Eddie Redmayne as his competition, there is no reason whatsoever not to give the prize to DiCaprio. Face it, it’s been a long time since an Oscar was awarded for an Oscar-calibre performance.

 

So what is this movie supposed to be about?  Well,  revenant is  French for a person who returns, usually from the dead. Herein lies the film’s ambiguity, and the one aspect of the film that engaged my mind, though not enough to keep me from from falling asleep several times during its duration.  If he is dead then at what point did he die? After the bear attack? or was he dead from the start? Or did he only die toward the end, shortly before the remark that he was not  afraid of death, as he had already been there. Of course, the line can also be interpreted metaphorically, and he was alive right up until the end. The  French definition gives us this out when it says the return is usually from the dad. It reminded me of an M. Night Shyamalan con, coasting on ambiguity until reaching a revelation that is supposed to make you think the movie is a lot better than you thought it was.

And maybe it is better than it looks to me.  I’m so far out of time that I even remember a world before rock and roll existed.  When I look at a movie like this, I’m  like some guy from the silent era looking at sound films in the thirties and whining about the art of film being lost.  Or some WWII vet who thinks movies look more realistic in black and white than in color. I’m sure that people raised in the video age are thrilled at the clarity of the Blu-ray, and a 35 mm screening of  “Man in the Wilderness” would look like an old dated piece of crap that wasn’t even worth looking at.  Probably would feel the same about “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”   So maybe, from the timely perspective of  the audience   for “The Revenant,”  I am uselessly imposing a dated aesthetic upon today’s cutting edge masterpiece.

One thing remains that bothers me. If Iñárritu is such a genius, what impels him to remake a mediocre wilderness picture from 1971? And what is it about his version that makes him believe it was worth $120 million of other people’s money to produce it?  Certainly there were flaws in the original, from a soundtrack that liberally steals from Jerry Fielding’s score for “The Wild Bunch” to Richard Harris’ hair that is impervious to dirt. But there were also some exquisite scenes, such as Harris placing a splint alongside a rabbit’s broken foot, or Harris’ arm falling limply into the flowing river after he falls exhausted down a slope. And even though neither film has much dialogue, the screenplay of “Man in the Wilderness” is constructed of definite scenes that lead us through place and time.  Even though it was filmed in Spain, we feel the movement from the Pacific Northwest across the mountains and plains to the Missouri River.  With “The Revenant,”  we have no sense of place. It just drags us shapelessly from no place to nowhere.

Even considering the geographical changes in the script from both the historical narrative upon which it is based and the settings for the Richard Harris film, director Iñárritu fails to place the action of  “The Revenant” into correspondant locations. The opening scene depicts an attack on the trappers from the Arikara, who were Indians of the Great Plains, living mainly in Nebraska and South Dakota.  But the scenes are filmed far North in Canada, and look it. Furthermore, DiCaprio’s character was married to and had a child by a Pawnee Indian, who would have lived along the Missouri River in either  Kansas or Nebraska. I have been to those places and they look nothing like the film’s locations.   Apologists for “The Revenant” may argue that the film takes place in some allegorial, metaphorical, or symbolic realm and that the topography represents a cosmology of the spirit.  To that, and to all those who use poetic licence as a  subterfuge for nonsense, I echo Antonin Artaud’s cry of “Shit to the Spirit!”  This movie is nothing but a wallow in the physical prison of death-in-life, and it teeters in the balance between gangrene and amputation.

Oscar Nominees, Predictions, and Omissions

 

 

After  a couple of exciting Oscar years, the nominations this time around are  an uninspiring lot. Most of the top shelf movies went ignored, while the nominees come from the second tier.  There is little to root for, and,   with the exceptions of  the miscast “The Danish Girl” and the amateurish “Room,”  isn’t much to rail against.  Middle of the road mediocrity prevails.  So here we are,  the Oscar nominees for 2016:

 

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

The only contenders here are “The Revenant” and “Spotlight,” and the Academy could go either way.  While the speeches from the “Spotlight” group would be the stuff Oscar dreams are made up, with a gaggle of Hollywood celebrities standing in for the real heroes, the investigative journalists of the Boston Globe. “The Revenant” is the kind of boring, big budget. low grossing, prestige picture that needs the Oscar push to get people to belly up to the box office.  But the best movie of the year, by far, is “Youth,” the second  English language film from Italian director  Paolo Sorrentino, who gave us the 2014 winner for Best Foreign Film, “The Great Beauty.” No other film comes close to this masterpiece starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, except perhaps “Carol,” which I have not yet seen and was not nominated, or “Brooklyn,” which was nominated, but I have not seen.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

The two top contenders are recent  winners, with Lawrence winning in 2013 and Blanchette taking it in 2014, so  the Oscar will go to sentimental favorite Charlotte Rampling, although Lawrence gave the performance of the year.

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

There is no reason not to give Leonardo DeCaprio his big moment in which  the world can pretend he is a great actor.  The industry needs a new great actor. The only competition is newcomer Bryan Cranston, star of the popular mini-series “Breaking Bad,” if only because they love to whine about the Hollywood Blacklist.  But Cranston, while he did a decent job in the role of Dalton Trumbo, is a newcomer as a leading man in film, and there is no need to boost his career at this time. the best actor of the year, however, was the un-nominated jake Gyllanhaal for his magnificent  performance as a light heavyweight boxer in  the under-seen “Southpaw.”

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

There are some good performances here, but the Oscar should go to Rachel McAdams, a very good actress who has not yet  been properly acknowledged as such.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, “The Big Short”
Tom Hardy, “The Revenant”
Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”
Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”

Again, this is anyone’s game.  Mark Ruffalo, like Rachel McAdams, is a fine actor who hasn’t received his due, and “Spotlight” was an actor’s picture.  Stallone was terrible in “Creed,”  but has a good chance with the sentimental vote.   The best performance, however, came from Mark Rylance  in “Bridge of Spies.”   My choise, however, is the un-nominated Paul Dano,, the best new actor to come along since Michael Shannon, in “Youth.”

Best Director
“The Big Short,” Adam McKayt.
“Mad Max: Fury Road,” George Miller
“The Revenant” Alejandro G. Iñárritu
“Room” Lenny Abrahamson
“Spotlight” Tom McCarthy

What a load of crappy directors.  If “The Revenant” takes Best Picture,  Alejandro G. Iñárritu may take the award for the second year in a row. Although I dislike his style, he did accomplish something grand as a director here.  But Tom McCarthy did a better job  of conventional directing in “Spotlight.”  Again, it is a toss-up.  The best directed films of the year,however, were  Sorrentino’s “Youth” and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin,” both ignored by the Academy.

Best Adapted Screenplay 
The Big Short
Brooklyn
Carol
The Martian
Room

I think “The Martian” will win, but  the un-nominated “Joy” was infinitely better.

Best Original Screenplay
Bridge of Spies
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Spotlight
Straight Outta Compton

“Spotlight” will win.  The un-nominated  “Youth” was infinitely better.

Best Animated Feature
Anomalisa
Boy and the World
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

“Inside Out” will win.  “Anomalisa” should win.

Best Documentary Feature
Amy
Cartel Land
Look of Silence
What Happened Miss Simone
Winter on Fire

“Amy” will win.   “What Happened Miss Simone”  was infinitely better.  I have not seen  the other three,  so I may  well be wrong.

Best Foreign Language Film
“Embrace of the Serpent” Colombia
“Mustang” France
“Son of Saul” Hungary
“Theeb” Jordan
“A War” Denmark

I havent seen any of these, but I  can’t imagine any of them being better than the criminally neglected “The Assassin.”

Best Original Score
Bridge of Spies
Carol
The Hateful Eight
Sicario
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A lot of crappy music  here, but Todd Haynes always does a good job with his soundtracks, choose him.  The Aademy will go with either “Bridge of Sighs” or “Star Wars,” if only because of their bad taste.

Best Original Song
“Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey
“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction
“Simple song No. 3,” Youth
“Til it Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground
“Writing’s on the Wall,” Spectre

No idea.

Best Cinematography
Carol
The Hateful Eight
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Sicario

“Revenant” for sure.  “The Assassin” was  better, but was not nominated.

Best Film Editing
The Big Short
Mad Max Fury Road
The Revenant
Spotlight
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This award usually has nothing to do with the  quality of the editing but, like most of the technical awards, exist to pad a big winner or console the big losers.  So that ends my comments. Let me know what your thoughts are.

Best Production Design
Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl
Mad Max Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Mad Max: Fury Road
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared
The Revenant

Best Costume Design
Carol
Cinderella
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Best Animated Short
Bear Story
Prologue
Sanjay’s Super Team
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
World of Tomorrow

Best Visual Effects
Ex Machina
Mad Max Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Sound Editing
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Sicario
Star Wars The Force Awakens

Best Sound Mixing
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Documentary Short
“Body Team 12”
“Chau, beyond the Lines”
“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah”
“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”
“Last Day of Freedom” Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman

Best Live Action Short
“Ave Maria”
“Day One”
“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)”
“Shok”
“Stutterer”

 

 

Movie Review: “Room” is an Amateur Effort That is Utterly Without Merit

 

 

I found nothing to like in “Room,” a misandrist allegory that redefines fatherhood in a manner that makes it possible to  eliminate all biological ties of a child to his male parent. The justification behind this lies within a tale of a psycho who kidnaps a girl and uses her as a sex slave for seven years, impregnating her with son in her first year of bondage.  Logically, her denial of his rights  to fatherhood has a solid basis, but Emma Donoghue, who wrote the screenplay from her own novel, has  little interest in the plot and character dynamics of her tale. Her aim  is to create a situation in which a woman can justifiably claim to be a child’s sole parent, regardless of biological ties to another person.  Hers is not simply a denial to grace a rapist with parental rights.  Such a position would be entirely rational and justified. But Donoghue’s fantasy goes much farther than that.  She wants to cut the boy off from the whole world, believing  a mother’s love is sufficient for all the provisions required for a child to live a fulfilled life. His first seven years are lived alone with his mom in a single room, while ugly episodes of sexual domination are played out in another room into which the child is forbidden to enter.

 

It isn’t merely this premise that makes director Lenny Abrahamson’s film such a cold experience. The problems begin with the cast and how they are directed.  Brie Larson, veteran of children’s television and mumblecore features, is  a dead cipher as Ma.  Her performance is a series of red flags warning the audience of her amateurism, from the habit of putting question marks at the ends of sentences that have none, to the tendency to put all her feeling into the word “so” rather than into the sense and meaning of the statement.  If the line is “I love him so much,” that love will be emphasized by a passionate, elongated “so” rather than in any feeling or expression conveying love.

 

Joan Allen, as her mother, proves that a tight mouth and a bad personality is not enough to express a tortured soul.  She stands around in doorways  like a character from an Ingmar Bergman film, using what is left of her emotive memory to work up some suffering poses.  She has some technical skill in  economically shifting such poses with as little as a twitch, but there is no commitment to the character.  then we have Jason Tremblay, another annoying child performer from television land, as little Jack.  I found it impossible to decipher the meaning behind all his squirminess, but can say that he was not at all pleasant to watch.

 

Emma Donoghue’s screenplay plays like it has been butchered by a screenwriting group that believes weird little truisms such as “If you cut every third line of dialog, your script will be improved.” Well, it sure seems like something like that must have been inflicted upon it, because  the audience is repeatedly left to spin the Wheel of Fortune in order to get the vowels and consonants necessary to make coherent phrases from the  scattered letters of the script.  Or maybe Donoghue is simply being lean, revealing only the bits of plot information that she deems essential, as she plays with childish argot such as referring to the room as “room” and the child’s hair as “my strong” rather than “my strength.”  Cute, huh?

 

But the whole thing is a fraud, the kind of nervy soap opera that used to be popular with housewives on the Lifetime Channel.  I found it amateurish, dull, and emotionally cold, as well as having its fair share of puzzling episodes.  Like the time mother and son spent in a penthouse hospital suite,  laying around eating pancakes and fruit while deciding if they were psychologically ready to join the general population after having escaped the seven-year ordeal with their captor.   The actors often seemed to be  playing out scenes that just randomly floated in through an open window.  Man, is this movie ever a head case.  I wonder what it is that its admirers are relating to here.

Movie Review: Eddie Redmayne is not a Pretty Sight as “The Danish Girl”

 

 

Korean-American comic Magaret Cho used to bitterly joke that, due to racism and sexism,  she would never be cast as the romantic lead across from Robert Redford. I argued that neither racism nor sexism were to blame, but  that she was physically unsuitable for such roles, just as I considered myself unsuitable for the parts that went to guys like Robert Redford. There was no Hollywood conspiracy against the average-looking person, but movies were a glamorous business, and even the actors who played gnarly characters were generally better looking than the man in the street.  Or at least more physically imposing.

 

So I wondered how someone who couldn’t  act, couldn’t sing, and was ugly as sin was cast as Marius in “Les Miserables.”  Even in a film as notoriously ill-cast  as Tom Hooper’s disastrous 2012 version  of the exquisitely popular musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel,   Eddie Redmayne’s presence as Cosette’s handsome lover was abominable.  But according to Hooper’s skewed aesthetis of beauty, Redmayne was suitable not only for Marius, but to play Cosette as well.

 

Even before Redmayne’s Einar Wegener starts passing himself off as the pretty Lili Elbe in Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” his physical repulsiveness makes it impossible to believe in him as the beloved husband of the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who played the seductive robot in “Ex Machina.” But when he starts dressing in female gear, any suspension of disbelief buckles like a badly built bridge in a hurricane. Granted, the real life Lili Elbe was no flaming beauty, but Redmayne’s impersonation is a walking horror.

The real Lili Elbe                                                                  Eddie Redmayne in drag

 

 

Although the story is quite tragic, and many will find it shatteringly so, especially when seeing it through the perspecitive of recent victories in the battle for equal rights of the gay, lesbian, and transgendered communities, “The Danish Girl” left me unmoved.  While images such as Dirk Bogarde’s make-up  grotesqely melting in the heat as he awaits his death on the beach in “Death in Venice,” will haunt me forever, Redmayne’s wilting face is something I wanted to get away from as quickly as possible, never to recall.  I realize that to the sensitive reader I might be sounding a bit like Donald Trump, but movies are literally false surfaces and not representative of three-dimensional reality.  All the viewer has to go on is the physical appearance of the actor and how skillfully the actor can imbue his physicality with the invisible stuff of soul and emotion.  Were Redmayne a decent actor, he might be able to transcend the shortcomings of his mortal shell.  As it is, the spectator has no recourse but to look away.

Movie Review: Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man”

 

 

A faithful allegiance to Woody Allen movies is like an addiction to a series of bad novels by an author admired in youth who is now cranking out variations on his earlier themes that one looks forward to if only for their familiarity. Allen’s films conform to a mold with such certainty that an evenness pervades that succeeds in regulating disparate levels of acting skills into the illusion of a committed ensemble. The dialog is seldom played at a level deeper that one might experience at the first read-through of a new play by an author whose greatest pleasure is hearing his lines read with the same finite emotion as fired by the author’s pen. The script never gets off the page. The actors never break out of Woody Allen’s skin. Yet we who follow Allen’s prolific career unfoldings do not complain. Attending his annual premieres is a ritual that provides something of a safe zone in a season of cinematic battering rams knocking us from screening room to screening room.

 
With “Irrational Man,” Allen takes on Dostoyevsky, but only to the extent of a welterweight warm-up bout. Since Allen’s films play so much like first drafts, I spend a lot of my imaginative time rewriting them as they unspool. By the time the movie is over, I have constructed a better one in my head, and often that is the movie I remember, which may be why I avoid re-seeing the films. But the ninety minutes a year spent watching one of these cookie-cutter movies provides such a pleasant respite from the enforced idiocy of most Hollywood product that I seldom regret the experience. Of the 50 or so movies Allen has written and directed, there are only half a dozen or so that I have disliked. And there are about the same number that I have found indispensable. The rest are just a marking of the years.

 
This tale of a philosophy professor who regains is love of life as well as his virility by the planning and execution of the perfect murder is a kissing cousin to  ‘Stardust Memories,” especially in the relationship between the professor and and adoring student played by Emma Stone, who is a caricature of Jessica Harper’s character in “Stardust Memories.” As Allen has grown too old to play himself anymore, he has taken to hiring younger, popular actors to speak his lines. Joaquin Phoenix does an admirable job of creating his own character within the Allen stereotype, although the script prevents him from doing much with it. Emma Stone, on the other hand, is content to echo Jessica Harper.

 
“Irrational Man” is one of the forty movies Allen has written and directed that pleasantly remind us that the old man is still alive and productive. His best years may be behind him, but we should treasure him while he is still with us. As one fictional character once said of another fictional character, “We shall not look upon his like again.”

Movie Reviews: Point of View in Bryn Higgins’ “Electricity” and “Unconditional Love.”

“I’m not a spasmo, for fuck’s sake. I’ve got epilepsy, that’s all.”

How you interpret “Unconditional Love” and “Electricity,” Bryn Higgins’ first two feature films, depends upon your point of view. The screenplays, both written by Joe Fisher, favor the protagonist’s viewpoint, often to the neglect of the narrative. “Electricity,” which rarely strays outside Lily’s head, is the less coherent of the two. We have no way of knowing if the new meds that have been prescribed for the epileptic Lily are improving or worsening her condition because we never see her case from the doctor’s point of view. He insists her condition is improving, but we experience it, through Lily’s point of view, as getting worse. “Unconditional Love,” on the other hand, while favoring the younger Owen’s point of view, is somewhat sympathetic to the older man Liam’s, emotions. How you feel about the movie may depend on your own feelings about the transgression of gender lines in sexual role-playing. Some may feel more comfortable skirting that issue altogether and enjoying the movie as if it were merely another variation on Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

If you are not gay, and don’t want to be a girl, then why did you take Liam away from me?”

Owen’s twin sister Kristen has a good point, but she is so far out on the periphery of Liam and Owen’s relationship that her point of view is of little worth. The truth of the matter, from Liam’s point of view, is that he wants Kristen, but finds Owen, when he is in drag, more attractive than his twin sister. And Owen has always had a problem with people who don’t believe he and Kristen look alike. Owen wants to be Kristen as much as Liam wants him to be Kristen. The big loser in this triangle is Kristen, who provides a model for the love object while she herself goes unloved.

Higgins is a long-time British television director who uses the opportunity of his two feature films to go wild with the visuals. The opening of “Electricity,” in which we experience Lily’s epileptic seizure through her eyes, is spectacular. The edges of reality blur, then melt, and finally crack. She is lashed by electrical currents, then thrown to the ground. For most of the movie, we look out at the world through Lily’s eyes, as she tumbles through the rabbit hole in search of her younger brother Mikey, to whom she wants to give one third of an inheritance from their recently deceased mother. But she also has an older brother, who seems to be the executor of the estate and is not so keen on giving Mikey his share.

But that is not important, as this is not a movie about siblings splitting an inheritance, but about one woman’s attempts to hold herself together in an unsympathetic world. Those who would help her are no more than peripheral shadows that appear and reappear without cause. And if the protagonist can make little sense of the world around her, how can the poor audience, in another world altogether from the film they are viewing, be expected to get the full picture?

Higgins is some kind of miraculous with his actors. Agyness Deyn, a model with a couple of movies to her credit, is not the sort you expect great things from, but Higgins puts her bedraggled beauty to riveting effect in “Electricity.” He also gets an honest and unique performance from Madeleine Clark in her feature debut as Kristen in “Unconditional Love.” But his real find is Christian Cooke, who has been working regularly in television since he was twelve years old, but hasn’t had a breakthrough film role until ‘Unconditional Love.” He also plays Mikey in “Electricity.” and proved he could play normal men as well as mixed-up ones in Christian Ditter’s recent romantic drama, “Love, Rosie.” If he gets the right kind of roles, Cooke just may emerge as the next full-on heart throb from England. If that fails, there is always the alternative of making his mark as a Bond villain.

Bryn Higgins is a director to watch. I hope he continues to make the movies he wants to make in the way he wants to make them. He has an original eye and an original mind.